“The King Has Desired Thy Beauty.” Read It And Weep: Why the Virgin Mary Is Creepy

Today is the 25th of March, a day on which the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary is celebrated in large parts of the world. Let’s reflect on that, shall we?

In my home town of Lund, Sweden, there is a magnificent 12th-century cathedral. Though a red-blooded atheist, I like visiting the cathedral sometimes. It is beautiful. It is peaceful. It once nourished the seeds of the university, where I have had the privilige and joy of gathering much learning. (It was also built thanks to the oppression of economically vulnerable people by a wealthy elite, but let’s leave that discussion for another day, shall we? “No slaves no naves”, as we say in cathedral-building circles.) The Church of Sweden in its current form is, to use Douglas Adams’s words in a sense he never intended, “mostly harmless”. It tends to support human rights, employs a large proportion of women priests, and has performed same-sex marriages since 2009. It has moved with the times, and the days when it publicly humiliated unmarried mothers, condoned marital rape, and denounced women seeking gainful employment, are reasonably far gone. In short, I find the Church of Sweden fairly inoffensive. But one thing that makes me wish I had a bulldozer and a regiment of enraged kamikaze warriors armed with blowtorches is the statue of the Virgin Mary outside Lund Cathedral.

“Skyddsmantelmadonnan”. Image: Sydsvenskan.

According to the Lund Cathedral website, the statue, entitled Skyddsmantelmadonnan (“The Madonna of the Protective Mantle”), symbolises the Virgin Mary’s  nurturing function. This representation of Mary as the nurturing, protective mother has a long tradition, going back to the Middle Ages. The wizened children appearing along the slit in the Virgin’s mantle are supposed, we are told, to represent the defenceless, the poor and the needy.

My own interpretation is very different. Rather like the Water Mother at Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Skyddsmantelmadonnan appears forced to give up her body to parasitic creatures. Her swollen belly seems to have been brutally cut open, exposing the mushrooming embryos within. Her body is being violated in a multitude of ways, yet she smiles serenely, having been socially conditioned to endure pain and abuse.

Poor Mary. An impoverished teenage girl, impregnated by an invisible being without so much as a by-your-leave. Perhaps the concept of consent didn’t exist in first-century Nazareth.  Even if it did, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am conception, executed by a ghost, doesn’t sound like much fun. To then become a representation of motherhood, of mindless succumbing fecundity, must be extremely depressing. Imagine being celebrated, for millennia, for pushing another human being out of your vagina. Another human being that nobody even asked you if you damn well wanted to push out of your vagina. Imagine this being your legacy. “She was impregnated by a ghost, and then gave birth.” And that’s it. Everyone gets so obsessed with the fact that you gave birth, while a virgin, that any clever thoughts you might have had, or any good ideas you might have had for making the world a better place, or any hangover cures you might have developed during a rich and interesting life, are simply not recorded.

Imagine being so entirely lacking in power that you can’t even decide if you want a child, and having a pregnancy forced on you by a magical sperm dispenser. Being that powerless must suck, right? (Here would be an excellent moment, by the way, to pause and ponder the very real denial of human rights happening in state after state in the U.S., with access to abortions and contraceptives being withdrawn.) Yet this is the life story of one of the most celebrated women of human history. Being raped by a ghost, and having a child. True, the Virgin Mary has some powers. According to tradition, she is able to intercede with God on behalf of sinners. Yay. If she smiles prettily, she can ask the man in charge for small favours.

So hang on, why is Mary, Mother of Jesus, described as a virgin, again? This is clearly insane; human reproduction simply doesn’t work that way. The explanation, in this case, is summarised in one word: patriarchy. As is so often the case for women in a patriarchal society, the access to power, however limited, comes at a price: You have to style yourself in a way that suits the system. Sex in a patriarchal, homosocial system is all about the manifestation of male power, and therefore degrades women. The mother of a god – the ultimate man – can obviously never be degraded; she must be pure and holy. (As the wealth of “your mother”-type insults and jokes in various cultures illustrates, the sexuality of mothers is a sensitive subject.) This means that, for the mother of God, the conception has to be described as a miraculous, immaculate one. As my own mother, who is well versed in the Classics, likes to point out, the concept of the Virgin birth is by no means original to the Christian tradition, but has been around since forever. Somehow, that doesn’t make me less depressed about the state of humanity.

The inability of the patriarchy to admit that a person presented as a deity was conceived the old-fashioned, tried-and-tested way has led to centuries of labour being invested in inventing an increasingly embellished and frankly ludicrous story of divine insemination. And it’s not only poor Mary who has been subjected to this process of invention. Mary’s mother Anne also had to be included in this wild fabulation. Anne isn’t mentioned in the canonical scriptures, but the apopcryphal gospels are crawling with stories of immaculate conceptions, sometimes going back three generations. Man-hour upon man-hour spent sitting around inventing a story. Just to make the Virgin Mary palatable to the patriarchy.

Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read. Image from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Has Mary never been presented any other way than as a magic baby-making machine? Actually, in the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary was often depicted as being taught to read by Saint Anne. Reading was not only an activity which required a certain amount of leisure, therefore indicating wealth and social status; it also symbolised devotion.  The word of God came to mankind through the Bible, and studying Scripture was an act of devoutness. Michael Clanchy, in “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?” (in Smith, Lesley, ed., Motherhood, Religion and Society in Medieval Europe, 400-1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser. London: Ashgate, 2011) discusses evidence of women in medieval Europe contributing to literacy, despite the patriarchal nature of society, in their role as mothers. The veneration of Anne as mother of Mary gained ground particularly in England and France in the fourtheenth and fifteenth centuries. Depictions of her tutorial activities appear in media intended for private use, like books of hours, as well as in public art in churches, in the form of statues and stained-glass images.

Quite possibly, depictions of Anne as teacher not only symbolise the teaching of religion, but could reflect a real tradition of mothers teaching their children, including daughters, to read. As Clanchy points out, however, the purpose of teaching girl children to read was less likely to be their intellectual development for its own sake, than to prepare them for their duties as mothers and bearers of (patriarchal) tradition. A rood screen from Thetford priory, now in the Musée de Cluny, shows Mary reading the text “Audi filia et vide et inclina aurem tuam quia concupuit rex speciam tuam” (Hearken, O daughter, and see and incline thine ear, for the king has desired thy beauty), which provides a rather depressing illustration of the use of girls and women as links, through marriage, in the forging of bonds between men.

The emphasis on Mary’s literacy in the Middle Ages may thus not have been intended to extol the virtues of women’s education. Still, if one were to create a representation of Mary for the modern age, why continue the age-old story of Mary the mother, whose only function is that of reproduction, of base biological utility? If one has a choice between depicting a culturally significant woman as either a thinking, reflective person engaged in intellectual activity, or one doomed to endless biological reproduction, why choose to emphasise her maternal function? Haven’t we got enough representations of women as nurturers? When will we get public representations of women using their intellect, and showing agency?

Simone de Beauvoir, when reflecting on the cause of woman’s subordination in The Second Sex, traced it to the immanence caused by pregnancy. Child-bearing, de Beauvoir argued, literally trapped women, and tied them to the home. The public sphere of education, economics, and jurisdiction has historically been prohibited to women, indeed has been used by men to perpetuate women’s subjugation and isolation in the domestic sphere. Whether pregnancy is, as de Beauvoir argues, the ultimate cause of women’s subjugation, is a matter for debate. Certainly enough prehistoric bodies (this one, for instance, which was discovered to be female in 1970) showing evidence of both childbirth and activities traditionally considered masculine like fishing, hunting, and warfare, have been found to question whether women have always been considered mere docile nurturers, or whether that is a more recent development. What we do know for sure is that the constant emphasis on women’s value as mothers and nurturers is harmful.

The kind of rhetoric that describes women as guardians of the domestic sphere is nearly always a sign of a political movement that wants to bolster patriarchal values. This means upholding a masculinity based on brute strength, the concept of family honour, and ingrained violence. (Think Vladimir Putin, or a village clan in Afghanistan, or gun-toting conservatives in the U.S.) This kind of masculinity promotes an entirely homosocial society, where women have no value except as possessions, and as a means of forming bonds between men. In a society where women have no value, they are denied education and medical care, including reproductive healthcare and the ability to regulate fertility. The inability to decide if and when they want children leads to women losing the power to determine their own destinies; to choose an education and a career; trapping them in domesticity. Women who can’t support themselves financially are frequently tied to relationships with abusive men whom they are unable to leave. When women are forced to give birth to children they do not want and cannot feed, it leads to poverty.

Mounting evidence from scholars shows that equality between the sexes is crucial to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity. When women are able to access education on an equal basis with men, and are paid for their labour, it has positive effects on all aspects of society. Denying women education and perpetuating social patterns of violence primarily hurts women, of course, but also damages society as a whole: domestic violence, for instance, has an enormous economic impact in terms of health-care costs, lost working hours, and reduced democratic involvement. And, as we know, the patriarchy hurts men, too. It is in everyone’s interest to promote women’s education and equal participation in the work force.

This is why the Lund madonna saddens and sickens me. To me, it is yet another manifestation of the patriarchal subjugation of women. It behoves the Church of Sweden – like it behoves every socially and culturally significant institution – to encourage equality. This includes promoting representations of women showing agency – if she can see it, she can be it! So can we please see the Virgin Mary in an active pose for once?  Equality between the sexes: it’s not a closed book.

I like ending my blog posts with a themed music video. Here’s one I like.

I’d also like to issue a reminder that the hymen is a myth.

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